We were lucky enough to interview Shane Snow, author of Dream Teams: Working Together Without Falling Apart, and founder of Contently, one of the world’s leading content marketing solutions for some of the biggest brands on the planet. On top of coming in studio to film our Facebook Live, Shane was also kind enough to share with us this brilliant article on his writing process. Check out our interview and his article below!
I just launched my third book, Dream Teams: Working Together Without Falling Apart. To celebrate and to pay forward some of the great book writing advice I’ve gotten over the years, I’ve decided to peel back the curtain and do the thing I never did in high school math class: show my work.
Over my 3+ year journey making Dream Teams, I documented my process at every step. I hope that peeking into it can help you with your own book or big writing project one day. I’m going to put together another big post on book marketing soon, but for now we’re just going to talk about making something worth marketing in the first place.
My quest is to share with friends and colleagues the alchemy behind what one critic called:
The best darn thing I have ever read ever, and I’ve read that essay on kindness Jesus wrote in high school.
Ok, nobody ever said that. But that’s the feeling you have when you finish a book. It’s exhilarating and awesome!
(For about 45 minutes before the panic of the prospect of someone reading said book sets in.)
The calm before the panic
This post will walk through the following:
- The agony of book writing — and how to get through it
- How I do concepting and research planning
- My research method(s)
- How I do my outlining before I buckle down to write
- The scoop on titling and book positioning (this comes before writing for a reason; you’ll see)
- How I wrote and shaped the Dream Teams manuscript (including a time-lapse video of me building a chapter in 1 minute using Evernote, Google Docs, and Hemingway!)
- Body Armor: editing, fact-checking, and manuscript bulletproofing
- My one tip on book cover design
- A rundown of my favorite tools for researching and writing
After all of that, you may just end up with something you’re proud to see your name on, like this:
Ok, here we go:
I. The Agony of Book Writing
Perennial houseguest Oscar Wilde was once asked by his host what he’d been up to that day…
“I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning,” Wilde replied, “and I took out a comma.”
“And in the afternoon?” the host inquired.
“In the afternoon,” said Oscar, “well — I put it back again!”
Oscar wasn’t slacking. Anyone who’s ever attempted to compose anything longer than a tweet knows that converting the human experience into words is like performing brain surgery with a Slap Chop. With a few notable exceptions (Kubla Khan, The Catcher in the Rye), great literature doesn’t just write itself. And no reader is ever going to think your baby is as cute as youthink he is.
“All writing is rewriting,” said John Green…
…and every other writer since cavemen scratched on rocks. If you’ve never spent 15 hours going over the same three pages again and again until your eyes bleed, then, buddy, you’re on the wrong career track.
What I’m trying to say is: Writing a book sucks way worse than writing other things. Even if, like me, you love the act of writing itself.
Trust me. Don’t do this if you aren’t willing to roll down one of those awful Chinese staircases naked for your book… and then walk back up and do it again. Cuz that’s what making a book is like.
If you’re ready to do that, though, there are some things that will help…
4 Things To Help Ease The Book-Writing Pain:
- Only write a book about something you love so much that you’re willing to talk about it for the next five years. Between the writing and the promoting, you’re going to be in this for a long haul. So if you’re going to write a book, write about something you’re happy to have the majority of your conversations be about for the next half-decade. Being madly in love with the topic will save you LOTS of pain when things get hard.
- Take breaks from thinking, before you feel burnt out. Don’t wait ’til you’ve got an epic case of writer’s block to take a breather. In fact, the right time to wander over to Netflix is precisely when you’ve still got something compelling left to say. Your muse is like a ’76 Gremlin. Park that sucker on a hill, and it’ll be so much easier to pop the clutch and bring the ol’ bird back to life one more time if it’s not burnt out.
- Try to make the actual thing as fun to read as it is to watch whatever is popular on Netflix right now. Basically: IF YOU’RE BORED, THEY’REBORED. Remember: only one person thinks it’s cute when your manuscript projectile-vomits mooshed peas. If you are boring you, just imagine your reader!
- Drugs. (Fun fact: All the greats did speed!) Okay, the real advice here is I recommend making a diet and caffeine routine—and being strategic about the timing—to optimize your output and minimize your excuses for not pounding out sentences. I actually spent a lot of my actual manuscript writing process in ketosis, which is a diet that, once you get into it, keeps your blood sugar and energy levels pretty stable. This is good, because my personal writing process involves bursts of long writing sprints, and you don’t want a mood/energy rollercoaster to affect something like that.
Lemme put it another way…
— A seventh-grader reads a book just to finish reading it.
— A noob writes a book just to finish writing it.
— But an author? An author weaves words for the sheer joy of it. An author has a song. So she sings.
So sing a song that won’t annoy you two years from now. (And then edit your song one million times.)
II. Concepting And Research Planning
You know that whole thing about how Michelangelo didn’t carve the statue of David, but instead he just dug into the stone until he “found” him? That’s what creating a good book is like. (I owe that analogy to my agent, Jim. Jim, you’re the best!)
Concepting is about finding the core thesis of the book you plan to write. What’s the underlying thing you’re writing about, the bedrock on which you’ll build your research and narratives?
Or, conversely, what’s the umbrella under which everything in your book lives. Or, what’s the thread that ties everything together?
Whichever analogy is the right one for your particular project, I think the first and most important questions to ask are these:
1. What am I trying to convey to people? And:
2. Is a book the best medium in which to convey it?
Don’t start writing your book until you’ve answered those questions.
With Dream Teams, I wandered around the intellectual map for a year before I could properly answer these. I wasn’t even sure I was working on a book for long time when I began exploring these concepts.
Initially, I started obsessing over a jumble of ideas that had been tickling my brain for some time. The following things came together in Dream Teams in some form. I found them adrift among a sea of a other ideas I had been noodling on and thinking about writing about as articles, or something:
- I’d been thinking a lot about the phenomena that occur when outsiders enter a new field — when physicist Freeman Dyson got into game theory and solved the Prisoner’s Dilemma, or when NASA engineer Lonnie Johnson invented the Super Soaker — and the patterns between that sort of thing and when, say, immigrants move to a new city (resulting in more patents being produced in that city, but also higher reports of fear among residents).
- I’d been thinking about how my role in my startup company had gone from “guy who builds things” to “guy who gets other people to build things,” and the paradoxes around creating an inclusive company culture while also wanting outsiders and diversity, for both pragmatic and moral purposes.
- I’d been thinking about how breakthrough innovation was often a product of friction, conflict, and rivalry, not sitting around a fire singing songs.
- I’d also been thinking about why genius and crazy look so similar, and how we need seemingly crazy people sometimes to help us move forward.
- Finally, I’d been mulling over the paradox of how my father (who worked at a nuclear test facility) had taught us kids about how scientists from all these different places worked together to harness this amazing new source of energy… but that same technology was now something those same scientists’ countries threatened to destroy each other with.
Was there a unifying principle to all these things? Was there an umbrella under which some of these fit? I didn’t see it at first. I was exploring all of these separately. Maybe for articles, maybe just to talk about at the bar. I didn’t quite know yet.
After a fair amount of research, I concluded that there was something to the idea of “The Outsider Advantage,” that could potentially make for an interesting book. I started researching and casually bringing up this concept in conversation with friends — just exploring it, prodding it, playing with it.
I eventually decided that the question of “Why is there sometimes an outsider advantage — and sometimes not?” was pretty interesting, and hadn’t been done much justice from a pop-psychology standpoint. The answer to the question soon became obvious: It’s because when different ways of thinking combine, we get creativity and innovation, or chaos and problems. And outsiders bring different ways of thinking with them.
When I started thinking about the ideas around “Different Thinking Combined,” suddenly the stuff I was noodling on about my company’s culture and team dynamics started to make sense in this context. So I started giving people elevator pitches about what I was studying around the idea of “Intellectual Friction” and then more generally, the idea of “The Power of Differences” in the workplace.
After lots more reading and discussing, I realized that learning about the power of differences was interesting — and there was enough new stuff there for a whole book — but the main question that readers would have was, “Why do I need to know this?”
This brought me back to the nuclear energy thing. If we blow ourselves up because we use our differences against each other, that would be a problem. But the inverse of that turned out to be the hook that a book on these kinds of intellectual explorations would need: What if we could learn to harness our different ways of thinking to become incredible together INSTEAD of blowing up? And not just in business, but in society, and at home?
That’s when I realized that we really had something. This was a big, meaty, fascinating topic that science could help us understand better — and a narrative nonfiction book could be the perfect way to talk about it. This was the David in the stone: a book about the art and science of really WORKING together without falling apart.
After settling on the thesis, I went through the following exercise:
The Snowflake Method:
I didn’t invent this; some fiction writer did. But it’s got my name inside it, so I don’t hate if you think of me when you think of it. 😉 It’s also been developed separately as “One Sentence, One Paragraph, One Page” in Ryan Holiday’s Perennial Seller, an awesome book on making creative work that lasts.
The Snowflake Method is about starting small and building out your book via a series of increasingly complex outlines. You start with a tiny snowflake, then you make it a little bigger. Then a little bigger. Until you have a snowball. Then whatever is bigger than a snowball.
This method is useful because it helps you clarify your pitch, and gives you a lodestone toward which you can orient everything you write.
Here’s the method:
Step 1: Workshop a one-line description of your book pitch
E.g. how the New York Times bestseller list would describe the book.
This should take longer than you think. I workshopped dozens before arriving at my final one for this book:
How some groups of people become incredible together, and why most don’t.
Step 2: Turn that into a one-paragraph description of your book
E.g. how you might describe your book in 15 seconds to Anderson Cooper
Here’s what I ended up with:
Dream Teams is about a paradox. When groups of humans come together, they can become more than the sum of their parts and make incredible breakthroughs together, but usually our groups slow down or break down instead. Dream Teams is an intellectual adventure through fascinating old history and compelling new science to discover what makes the difference between those two outcomes.
Step 3: Turn that into a one-page description of your book
E.g. what would go on the book flaps?
Here’s one of the final versions of mine:
WHY DO SO MANY PARTNERSHIPS AND GROUPS BREAK DOWN — AND WHY DO A SELECT FEW BREAK THROUGH SPECTACULARLY?
We all know that the best teams are more than the sum of their parts, but collaboration so often fails to fulfill this promise. Studies and statistics reveal unambiguously that individuals consistently outperform teams.
But there are a small number of teams that defy the odds. This book is about those dream teams: the creative agencies, rap groups, social movements, and ragtag armies that manage to pull off amazing things together, far beyond what any individual could do.
Shane Snow takes us on an adventure through history, neuroscience, psychology, and business to reveal what separates groups that simply manage to get by from those that get better together.
Drawing on exciting stories from history, Snow explains how to leverage team members’ diverse perspectives and experiences. He reveals why most mergers flop — and the one factor that predicts failed mergers, marriages, and partnerships. He teaches partners and groups how to fight with one another productively. And he dissects great social movements throughout history to decode the science of becoming open-minded.
Note: this is a little different than what actually ended up on the flap copy of the book. The final includes specific examples that I wrote about for each of the principles. But when you’re just outlining, you probably won’t have these specifics yet.
Step 4: Repeat steps 1–3 for every individual chapter of the book.
In order to do this, you’ll likely need to do more research than you’ve done at this point. So that’s what we’ll dive into next.
III. Research & Reporting
Inmiddle school, one of the few things I liked more than the math club was the Science Fair. If you ever did Science Fair, you may remember the Scientific Method, as taught to school kids. This is basically what I think all writers should keep in mind when embarking on research for their books.
Step 1: Make an observation
Step 2: Form a question
Step 3: Form a hypothesis
Step 4: Experiment/research/interview/etc. to disprove or prove the hypothesis
Step 5: Analyze the results and draw a conclusion
When I go through this process, I’ll typically create an Evernote notebook on the subject, and then I will fill it with notes.
I’ll use Evernote’s Web Clipper to download PDFs and web pages and scholarly research on the subject into the notebook.
I’ll watch documentaries or listen to interviews on the subject while taking notes simultaneously in Evernote in the notebook.
I’ll conduct interviews, record them, get them transcribed at Rev.com, and then dump the transcripts and audio files into Evernote.
I’ll fill Evernote notes on the subject with links to Internet articles and my commentary/summary.
And basically, for each topic, I’ll end up with something like these:
Some observations and questions will not be answerable by researching what’s already out there. So you’ll have to either
a) interview people and extract insights from them;
b) find raw data and extract insights from it; or
c) conduct an original study or experiment.
For Dream Teams, I conducted several research studies and experiments, and supplemented existing research with original, primary research by conducting several national surveys using SurveyMonkey, my favorite tool for polling hyper-specific audiences inexpensively.
I then analyzed the data I got (from both my original studies and data I downloaded from Internet databases) using Tableau, my favorite tool for finding stories in data. Here’s a few examples of how I used the scientific method and these tools to do all that:
Example #1: Innovation vs Inclusion
In the course of research, I came across a statistic from Gallup that said that workers were more likely to do poorly if their managers ignored them than if their managers mainly focused on their weaknesses. I found this curious, and dug a pretty deep rabbit hole to learn about the damaging effects that exclusion, organizational silence, and superficial communication have on relationships — at work or in life in general.
My observation: Excluding people makes for unstable relationships.
My question: How does exclusion affect companies?
My hypothesis: Excluding people decreases the likelihood of producing breakthrough innovations or novel solutions to problems inside of a company.
My experiment: I decided to do a SurveyMonkey poll of American workers at fast-growing, innovative companies, and pit them against workers at slow-growing, non-innovative companies. SurveyMonkey makes it easy to generate lots of data really quickly. So I designed a survey and collected data on this front.
My analysis: I exported the SurveyMonkey data to CSV, and then loaded the survey responses into Tableau. Tableau immediately spat out this chart for me (which we then re-formatted for the book):